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ILFOCHROME Classic Deluxe Super Glossy
A Unique and Challenging Photographic Print Medium

It has been said that Ilfochrome is the easiest analog color product to print and by far the most difficult from which to make a good print.

I began printing Ilfochrome, then called Cibachrome, in 1978 and did so professionally in substantial volumes (only my own imagery) from 1993 until 2008. Over those years technique and results improved, but the extent of what was possible expanded accordingly so it never became easier. The challenges involved in producing excellent Ilfochromes are formidable. It was sometimes tedious but never boring.

Ilfochrome is an extremely high contrast material. To print accurately to the original transparency, or the scene as viewed by the eye, most images require varying amounts of exposure to specific portions of the subject matter. This is accomplished by burning and dodging (lightening and darkening), flashing and or contrast masking. The more dynamic the image the more such manipulation is required. To push the limits of what is feasible without unnatural demarcation lines or other artifacts being visible in the print is the essence of the art and something learned only through long experience, patience and repetitive failures.

Ilfochrome is an exceptionally slow medium, requiring much more light during exposure than other print materials. In addition it also exhibits severe reciprocity failure; as the amount of exposure increases color balance shifts dramatically. Reciprocity failure also causes the material to load up as exposure increases, becoming more resistant to the effects of further exposure. In effect, with each additional increment of exposure still greater amounts are needed to achieve proportional results. Compensating for these idiosyncrasies is basically done by trial and error and can require considerable time, media and chemistry before a successful print is achieved. Unlike other optical print media, Ilfochrome cannot tolerate any safe light. All darkroom work, except when the enlarger is exposing, must be performed in absolute pitch darkness. During exposures the light projected onto the dark brown unprocessed Ilfochrome is so faint that the eyes must be fully adjusted to the dark in order to see the image with any definition.

Repeatable results are very difficult to obtain when changing from one emulsion code (manufacturing lot) to another, a frequent necessity since the unprocessed material has a very limited shelf life. Every emulsion code has different exposure and color balance characteristics. This was probably the principal obstacle preventing Ilfochrome’s general acceptance and widespread use by professional color laboratories. The very expensive materials and other legendary difficulties were also factors. I normally had to use two or three different emulsion codes a year for each size. The shelf life of the unopened, hermetically sealed packages was 6 months at 70º F., 9 months at 40º F. and one year frozen, and this was from the date of manufacture. Thus I couldn’t fill my dedicated chest freezer with sufficient quantities of a single batch to last longer.

When printing a new image test printing can typically require a full day or more before the first exhibition print is attempted. And then the first two or three of those are normally trashed before the print method is perfected and finalized. Automatic rapid dryers mar the mirror surface of Ilfochrome Classic, so exhibition prints can only be air dried, requiring about two hours, before color balance can be evaluated. They’re distinctly reddish when wet. Historical printing data for an image is of limited use because every image, depending on colors and density, reacts uniquely with every distinct emulsion code. Thus even previously printed images must be test printed for use with a new batch of the medium.

I experimented extensively with contrast masking but almost never employed this method because it slightly increased density and can create problems with halos and color fringing. Instead I used proprietary techniques developed through experience. A typical print involved from 3 to 6 separate exposure sequences – each with different enlarger head light intensity settings, lens aperture adjustments and changes of the dichroic color filtration settings to progressively compensate for reciprocity failure. During each exposure as many as three manual burning and dodging operations might be employed at various intervals and for precise amounts of time – using shading tools meticulously fabricated for each image. Timing increments were measured with a ticking metronome. My Durst 1200 4” X 5” dichroic enlarger head has range of 0 cc to 150 cc (color correction units) each for yellow, magenta and cyan filtration. A single cc unit of any of these during an exposure sequence usually makes a visible difference in the final print. While digital color adjustments can be viewed instantly in Photoshop, Ilfochrome requires more than an hour of tedious work to evaluate each change.

Of the 84 images currently on my web site, 7 or 8 have probably accounted for more than half my Ilfochrome print sales since 1993. Some powerfully compelling images, and they are rare, simply have very broad universal appeal. By repetitively printing these same images in quantity, year after year, I was able to gradually improve the printing technique and result for each image. In a few instances such discoveries were accidental.

For maximum quality each print was individually drum processed with a JOBO rotary immersion unit – the temperature being maintained within .2 º F. for consistent results. Automatic wet to dry processing devices, which employ replenishing of the chemistry at intervals, cannot provide the same consistent print-to-print results as processing each print with identical fresh chemistry. JOBO processing is automated but not automatic. During the first half of the 30 minutes required for processing and washing each print, the longest interval between manual operations is about 90 seconds.

During extended periods, with requisite test printing, production averaged about 7 to 8 prints during a 12 to 14 hour day in the darkroom. This was possible only because of fairly large production runs (typically 15 to 60 prints of an image) once a print method was finalized for a particular image and Ilfochrome emulsion code. Probably no professional color lab and few others if any use similar methods and techniques. I doubt that any commercial lab could produce optimum Ilfochrome prints of most of my images at an affordable price. Prior to 1978, when I began printing, and later during the 1990s to satisfy my curiosity, I had Ilfochromes made by three different well known and highly regarded custom labs. In my experience, for the majority of my images, merely acceptable print quality from outside sources on a dependable basis would be an unrealistic expectation.

Commercial labs undoubtedly have many satisfied customers. Ilfochrome prints, even of less than optimum quality, can still look spectacular when compared to other media. And most prints of a compelling image can look good until compared side by side with something that is distinctly better.

Some commercial labs that worked with Ilfochrome suggested guidelines for the types of images which they recommend for this material, specifically those with fairly low contrast, even illumination and preferably somewhat monochromatic. Images which appeal to me and also sell briskly definitely do not meet those criteria.

A few professional labs that print Ilfochrome do not attempt to print directly from original transparencies. Instead the original is scanned, contrast and dynamic range are then adjusted by digital editing, and transparencies for printing without manipulation are digitally prepared by a film recorder. This provides some of the advantages of Ilfochrome but negates others.

From its inception in the early 1960s through the early 1990s there were successive gradual improvements to the product. Ilfochrome Classic should not be confused with the discontinued Ilfochrome Pearl and Ilfochrome Rapid media which featured a resin coated paper base (RC paper). Only Ilfochrome Classic material with its dimensionally stable and chemically inert polyester base is considered to be truly archival. It contains no paper.

Ilfochrome Classic Deluxe Super Glossy is very suitable for reproduction with Durst Lambda laser printers. However few labs used Ilfochrome for laser reproduction because of its unique dedicated chemistry, as well as its very expensive materials and other brutal difficulties. Automatic processing equipment is only practical when used for extended periods of operation and volume production. Products made for laser printing by Kodak and Fuji are compatible with the ubiquitous chemical processing common to most other color print media.

Occasionally, when requested by a client, I had digital prints produced in larger sizes, up to 30” x 40”. These were Durst Lambda laser reproductions from 300 MB scans. The conventional print medium used was Fuji Crystal Archive. It was the best option at the time for very large prints, and the aesthetic quality was pleasing but not comparable in my opinion to Ilfochrome. The laws of physics prevented me from optically printing Ilfochrome at such greater magnifications with quality comparable to my 16” x 20” prints.

In 2004, comparing digital Durst Lambda prints to Ilfochrome, I wrote:

But for my current print sizes (11” x 14” and 16” x 20”) I continue to use Ilfochrome. In my opinion even state of the art digital prints cannot yet match the quality of optically printed Ilfochrome. Besides differences in resolution, color separation and hue rendition, digital prints, in my opinion, universally tend to have a somewhat flat appearance. Nothing else can equal the rich luster and radiant beauty of Ilfochrome.

That opinion I think is still largely valid. Since then, however, improvements in scanning, inkjet printing technology, and the introduction of Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Paper media in November 2007, have made possible very superior digital prints compared to what was available in 2004. Results have exceeded my expectations. In regard to most of my images, I think my inkjet prints are aesthetically equal to or in some cases even better than the Ilfochromes. There are a few exceptions. Digital imaging simply affords more control than could ever be achieved in optical darkroom printing. The digital process if done with good technique and skill can usually yield a more accurate rendition of the original photograph or the scene as it was viewed by the eye. The resolution and sharpness of my digital Archival Pigment Prints is comparable to that of Ilfochrome, and color saturation, with the media being used, is impressive.

Ilfochrome and Archival Pigment Prints are two different media. They both have limitations as well as comparative advantages and disadvantages. They cannot be made to look alike. The printer can only strive to maximize the potential of each medium.

Carter E. Gowl
Arlington, Virginia
April 2011



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